Bitch, be careful: The importance of context in language

Opinion by Caitie Karasik
April 8, 2015, 9:30 p.m.

A memorable scene from the first season of Louie shows Louis CK and his male comedy friends playing a game of poker that devolves into a discussion of gay men. Amidst jokes and some homophobia comes the question of whether or not the word “faggot” is offensive. The “only gay guy in the group,” as Louis calls him, explains its origins: “They used to just throw [homosexuals] in with the kindling, with the other faggots.” Suddenly, a word defined by hatred and spewed with vitriol is weighted because it carries a history; employing it requires some thoughtfulness, and one must avoid using it as a casual descriptor.

A word’s meaning can change over time or be newly understood as it slips into cavalier usage, but it’s important to place language in context. “Bitch,” for instance, isn’t innocuous. It is a loaded word, and contextualizing it requires taking stock of when and in what ways it should be deployed.

Most people know that “bitch” refers to a female dog. But as far back as one can trace it, as Vice’s Arielle Pardes reports in an evolution of the word, “bitch” has always been derogatory – an insult to women. Someone becomes a “bitch” by being promiscuous or stepping outside the narrow confines of acceptable womanhood. Pardes notes that the presence of the word ”bitch” in newspapers more than doubled between 1915 and 1930, when suffragettes fought for the right to vote. Usage also surged in the misogyny and threat of violence against women of 80s and 90s rap. “Bitch” is then traced to feminists who sought to align “bitch-hood” with power, not oppression.

People may understand that notable instances like Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit demean women, but the word is still decidedly popular in music and pop culture. Today, as Pardes writes, women can self-identify as a powerful “bitch,” call their friends “betches,” or consider a woman perceived as overly harsh (read: masculine) a “bitch” with “resting bitch face.” It may be fairly clear that men calling women “bitches” isn’t necessarily okay, but the legacy of the word’s origins as a signifier for women, therefore inherently unequal, complicate its usage even among women themselves.

Sociologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill address this issue in “Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of ‘Bitch,’” concluding that the word is intrinsically sexist, promotes false power (illustrated by a discussion of the lyrics to Alanis Morisette’s “I’m a Bitch”) and legitimates a term rooted in a patriarchal worldview. “Slang terms, such as ‘fuck’ and ‘bitch,’” they write, “are markers of young men’s masculinity.”

Using “bitch,” even to reclaim its hurtful power, might defeat the purpose by propagating the word’s connotation. Ultimately, though, this analysis may not sufficiently consider the role of context in dictating when the word is appropriate on a case by case basis.

For example, it is wildly simplistic to say that women use the word “bitch” to approximate masculinity or misogyny. Toughness and the act of subordinating others, à la Beyoncé’s “Bow Down / I Been On,” in which she chants, “Bow down, bitches,” is fundamentally empowering because the act of reclamation can be successful when it is exclusionary. “‘Bitch’ doesn’t belong to you. Only I can call myself or others a ‘bitch,’” she seems to say, as if refusing to apologize for or accept the implications of the word. And the suggestion of a “bitch” in this case might not necessarily be an insult. It might attempt to complicate femininity as compatible with traits seen as more masculine, like aggressiveness and sexual agency. Beyoncé, a vocal feminist, is demanding respect and admiration, and pitting her competition, regardless of gender, as weak. Weakness, then, loses its tie to the status of women, commenting on, not reinforcing, women’s disenfranchisement.

Whether or not you agree that “bitch” perpetuates a sexist conception of women and should be phased out, the lesson here is that context is everything: words matter, and it is vital to assess their meaning when they are used lest they mindlessly infiltrate our vocabulary like the word “like.” A woman saying she is a “bad bitch” is not the same as a man calling a woman “his bitch.” The first can be a term of endearment, the other of possession steeped in a history of oppression. A man telling a man not to be a “bitch” means something entirely different from a woman telling another woman not to be a “bitch.” For one thing, the former suggests women lack value, and the latter suggests that women can only behave in certain ways. For another, men simply lack unfettered access to “bitch,” “pussy,” “cunt,” or “slut” because these words were intended by males to insult what’s female, or restrict women’s freedom of thought and behavior. Similarly, “retarded” is off-limits to those without disability, and saying a merely indecisive person is schizophrenic appropriates a disadvantaged group. Intent should be evaluated in tandem with historical context.

Maybe feminists should think seriously about ruling out “bitch” entirely because at its core it disparages women in a pointed way — anyone can be an “asshole,” even a “dick” though it refers to male genitalia, but “bitch” targets women. It means different things when applied to men versus women. Further, “bitch” causes problems among women who don’t want to seem like one, or use it to bring other women down. Still, it relies on a context-dependent, nuanced interpretation, one that takes into account what women decide insults them, and how an insult can be redefined instead of adopted. At the very least, people should be careful, speaking with intent and not with reckless abandon, recognizing exactly what they are saying, why and to what effect.

Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ 

Caitie is a senior majoring in Sociology with a minor in Political Science. She studies generational differences in gender norms, and is particularly interested in the attitudes and behaviors that characterize Millennials ("Generation Y"). Contact her at [email protected] with comments or questions.

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